18th Century life in the West Indies: the life and works of Agostino Brunias
by Alissandra CUMMINS
One might wonder why an 18th Century Italian painter has become
so important in a place far distant from his birthplace. Although generally
regarded as a minor English artist in various contemporary historical texts,
Agostino Brunias (also known as Brunyas or Brunais) has in recent years gained
increasing significance, not only for the art historian, in the Caribbean.
Caribbean Art History is a relatively young field of study and
the work of this Italian painter forms a major part of the regions
artistic resources. The colonial life of the West Indies can only be recaptured
through the analysis of contemporary descriptions, both visual and written,
which provide intriguing glimpses of that particular aspect of world history.
Brunias work has special significance for researchers in this field. The
relative rarity of images of the Indian, black and mulatto populations in the
islands was no doubt indicative of the attitudes of the 18th century creole
plantocracy. In general they preferred not to be reminded of an aspect of their
daily lives which, by the latter half of the century, was becoming more of a
social burden than an economic convenience.
Why would a young artist brought to the West Indies under a
governors patronage give so much attention to such an unfashionable topic?
The answer lies, at least partially, in the nature of both the man and his
patron, Governor Sir William Young. When Brunias first arrived in the Caribbean
in 1770 the tropical landscapes, the glowing colours and warmth of the winds,
and the exotic lifestyle made a tremendous impact on the previously correct
academician. Almost immediately his painting reflected this enchantment, and for
25 years, until his death, Brunias remained under the spell of the West Indies.
Born in Rome in 1730, little is known of the artists early
life until he entered the Academy of Design of Saint Luke in Rome as a young art
student around 1748. There he received a rigorous academic training which
included drawing and copying antique Roman sculpture and studying the painting
techniques of the master painters, destined to prepare him for a life as the
versatile working artist he was expected to become. He received some small
distinction in 1754 when, as part of his graduation, Brunias won third prize for
his set piece.
The painting Tobias and the Angel took almost three
months to complete and shows little of the personal style Brunias was to develop
in later years. Instead, the work is replete with the traditions of centuries.
Brunias cannot be totally to blame for the stilted formality of the scene of
Tobias at the moment of revelation. The self-consciousness of the artists
technique reveals Brunias anxiety to succeed, and indeed his training
stood him in good stead once he left the Academy. By 1756 he had found
employment as a draughtsman with the famous English architect/designer, Robert
Apprenticeship to Adam
Under Adams supervision, Brunias exercised his training to
the full, completing the exhausting task of meticulously recording the
dimensions and decoration of the Baths of Diocletian, and other famous sites and
ruins. For the next two years, Adam kept Brunias and his colleagues busy on a
relentless schedule drafting drawings and plans of many other antique sites
located all over Italy. This was Adams preparation for developing the
knowledge necessary to satisfy his clients taste for the neo-classical in
interior design. However, there was little opportunity for Brunias to develop a
recognisable personal style; Adam has become the key to his success.
In 1758 Adam returned home to London taking Brunias with him.
Over the next few years Brunias continued to work for Adam, producing working
drawings to the designers specifications and, later, large decorative
paintings in the neo-classical style intended to complement Adams
interiors designed for the stately homes of Englands aristocracy. Brunias
also started to exhibit his work regularly with The Free Society of Artists,
hoping, no doubt, to develop a larger clientele and greater popularity. His
paintings from this period all bear titles such as A Large landscape, with
ruins and figures.
Despite his attempt at independence the familiarity and
popularity of the antique provided a safe approach to the public market. Brunias
was caught in the trap of his own making. Although he eventually parted company
with Robert Adam, in 1765 he had found employment with another London architect,
William Chambers, and continued to support himself producing commissioned pieces
for clients residences.
By the age of 40, Brunias has achieved a comfortable reputation
for himself as a landscape and figure painter as well as an engraver, but he had
never achieved the prominence to which he aspired. The artist had reached a
cross-roads in his career when he was approached by Sir William Young to travel
under his patronage to the West Indies. Sir William was appointed Governor of
the Leeward Islands in 1770 and took up residence in the island of Dominica for
the period of his office.
The Leewards - a revelation
Brunias leapt at this opportunity to travel to this little-known
territory. Brunias no doubt saw himself as fulfilling the romantic dream of any
young artist at the time. Travel and adventure in exotic places was the ambition
of many with the hope of achieving success and prosperity. Indeed the artist
found himself surrounded by every luxury, for contemporary records report that
Sir William lived in the style of a Prince. . . .
Almost immediately the artist was inspired and sent two drawings
after nature to be exhibited in London. Over the next three years
Brunias worked feverishly to record his impressions of an environment, both
natural and cultural, that was as alien to the mores of European society in its
own way as the Far East was to the artists who discovered that
region in the 19th century.
Every aspect of West Indian society was captured on
Brunias canvas. He recorded the simple chattel huts and unfettered lives
of the islands caribindian population as meticulously as he did the
indolent lifestyle of the creole plantocracy. Of primary importance for
Caribbean historians however, was Brunias detailed sketches and paintings
of the slave and free coloured populations. Bound inextricably to the demands of
the plantation, the negro could not escape the pervasive influence of European
society. In many of his paintings, the dress and stance of this subject apes the
mode of English society of the period. This impression is enhanced by the
classical qualities with which the artist imbues his figures regardless of
whether they are fighting, washing clothes or standing at their ease.
It is clear that Brunias was as much influenced by the theories
of the noble savage surfacing around this time, as he was intrigued
by the complexity of a culture which incorporated both African and European
elements at every level. In his Free Natives of Dominica, Brunias
records in magnificent detail the extravagant clothing, headdress and jewellery
of the islands mulattoes. At the same time both men and women adopted the
tall intricately-folded headties which were primarily African in origin.
In his larger pieces such as A Cudgelling Match. ..
and A Negroes Dance in the Island of Dominica Brunias
provides a wealth of detail about the habits and customs of a rigidly delineated
society. The paintings are invaluable markers to the ways in which negro men and
women conducted themselves under the harsh reality of colonial society. Brunias
was also given the opportunity to travel to many of the other islands as
Governor Young toured his estates within the territory. His canvases of
Barbados, St. Vincent and St. Kitts reveal aspects of the social and economic
life of each island which, despite their rather romanticised flavour, help in
developing a clearer perspective of 1 8th century life in each island.
Brunias returned to England with Sir William in 1773 and
immediately set to work creating large-scale paintings based on his smaller
sketches. The following year he exhibited two of his pieces at the Royal Academy
of London where they were favourably received. Over the next few years he
continued to exhibit regularly, finally achieving the success he so avidly
sought. His exotic scenes captured the publics imagination to such an
extent that the series of prints which he later produced sold successfully to
the European market.
Despite this success, however, Brunias could not forget his
island home and returned there after visiting the continent once more. Once
again Brunias life faded into comfortable oblivion, despite the continued
success of his paintings and prints. Perhaps once he had achieved his success he
was happy to retreat into solitude, for little or nothing is known of his final
years in Dominica until his death in 1796. Nevertheless this this century
artist, traveller and chronicler has left an invaluable legacy to the region, a
legacy which is now the subject of ongoing research, analysis and